Georgia students walk out, PM vows to pass 'foreign agent' bill on Tuesday

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) -Hundreds of university students in the Georgian capital walked out of classes on Monday, joining thousands of protesters opposing a bill on "foreign agents", as the prime minister vowed parliament would pass the bill on Tuesday.

The bill's opponents have staged near-nightly protests for a month. A rally on Saturday was one of the largest Georgia has seen since it won its independence from Moscow in 1991.

The European Union has said the bill - which requires organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence - threatens Georgia's bid to join the bloc.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says the legislation is needed to enhance the transparency of NGO funding and protect the country from interference by Western powers.

The party's founder, ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said such interference could drag Georgia into a war with Russia, in which Georgians are used as cannon fodder.

Polls show an overwhelming majority Georgia's 3.7 million people back EU accession. Georgian Dream says it wants to join the bloc, as well as the NATO military alliance, despite its anti-Western rhetoric.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said on Monday parliament would pass the bill's third and final reading on Tuesday, and that the draft law enjoyed wide support in the country.

Asked about the prospect of sanctions by Western countries opposed to the bill, Kobakhidze accused them of "blackmail" and said that party founder Ivanishvili was already under "de facto sanctions", though he provided no evidence.

Students rallying on Monday said they saw the bill has representing a choice between integration with the European Union and a return to Russian influence.

"I think (the law) is very disrespectful for students, for every single person who stands here", said Ana Samkharadze, an 18-year-old international relations student.

Student Vache Nikolaishvili, 19, said it was crucial for young people to voice their dissent: "When we have such a law, when we have such a government, there is no time for university."

Students from several Tbilisi universities marched into the city centre on Monday evening, where they joined thousands of protesters in front of the Soviet-built parliament building.

Western countries and domestic critics have denounced the bill as authoritarian and Russian-inspired, likening it to similar legislation which has been used to hound critics of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied any association with the Georgian legislation.

On Sunday several thousand protesters staged an all-night rally outside parliament in a failed attempt to prevent lawmakers from entering on Monday.

The judiciary committee - boycotted by opposition parties - formally approved the bill in a one-minute session.

Twenty people were detained, including two U.S. citizens and one Russian national. The State Department said the U.S. was aware of reports of U.S. citizens being detained. Russia's diplomatic representatives in Georgia did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment.

(Reporting by Reuters in Tbilisi; Writing by Lucy Papachristou in London; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Andrew Osborn, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)